It’s Easier To Act Your Way Into a New Way of Thinking Than To Think Your Way Into a New Way of Acting

John S. White? F. J. Finch? Glenn Franc? E. Stanley Jones? Orval Hobart Mowrer? Harry Emerson Fosdick? J. P. Allen? Zig Ziglar? Bruce Norman? Susan Glaser? John C. Maxwell? Jerry Sternin? Millard Fuller?

Dear Quote Investigator: In self-help and motivation books I’ve encountered the following saying:

It is easier to act yourself into a new way of thinking, than it is to think yourself into a new way of acting.

This remark employs a rhetorical technique called chiasmus. The first phrase is repeated while some of its words are cleverly re-ordered. Would you please explore the provenance of this expression?

Quote Investigator: This adage belongs to an evolving collection of expressions with changing vocabulary that each employ chiasmus. Here is a sampling with dates. The phrasing varies, and these assertions are not all logically equivalent:

1930: easier to act yourself into right thinking than to think yourself into right acting. (Spoken by John S. White or F. J. Finch)

1932: easier to live yourself into right thinking than it is to think yourself into right living. (Attributed to Glenn Franc)

1937: easier to act your way into right thinking than to think your way into right acting. (E. Stanley Jones)

1959: easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting. (Anonymous)

1959: easier to act your way into a new way of feeling than to feel your way into a new way of acting. (O. Hobart Mowrer)

1961: easier to act yourself into a new way of thinking than to think yourself into a new way of acting. (Attributed to E. Stanley Jones)

1965: easier to act yourself into a new way of feeling than to feel your way into a new way of acting. (Attributed to O. Hobart Mowrer)

1969: easier to act your way into new ways of thinking than to think your way into new ways of acting. (J. P. Allen)

1979: easier to behave your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of behaving (Called “Kegley’s Principle of Change” by John Peers)

The first saying in this family was employed in 1930 during a Sunday School Convention held in Nebraska. The two main speakers were John S. White, general secretary of Nebraska, and F. J. Finch, educational director for the Methodists of Nebraska. The local newspaper reported that one of these gentlemen employed the saying, but the precise orator was unidentified. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Much food for thought was left by these men in statements such as “It is easier to act yourself into right thinking than to think yourself into right acting.” “Stop preaching religion and live it, practice it in your everyday life.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1932 “The Greenfield Daily Reporter” of Indiana described a sermon delivered by a local Methodist minister who employed an instance with the phrase “live yourself’ instead of “act yourself”: 2

I believe, as Glenn Franc said, ‘It is easier to live yourself into right thinking than it is to think yourself into right living.’

In 1936 the influential religious author and missionary E. Stanley Jones published “Victorious Living”, and he used an instance: 3

We saw yesterday that moral wrongness makes intellectual blindness. It is easier to live yourself into right thinking than to think yourself into right living. In a moral world the deepest organ of knowledge is moral response. Without that we are blind, however much we may think.

In 1937 E. Stanley Jones published “The Choice Before Us”, and he employed an instance with the phrase “act your way into” instead of “act yourself into”: 4

. . . for it is easier to act your way into right thinking than to think your way into right acting.

In 1940 the prolific E. Stanley Jones published another book titled “Is the Kingdom of God Realism?” He used the version in the 1930 citation: 5

It is easier to act yourself into right thinking than to think yourself into right acting.

The 1959 book “Critical Incidents in Psychotherapy” included a section written by the U.S. psychologist Orval Hobart Mowrer who used two sayings. The second saying used the word “feeling”: 6

Recently the present writer came upon an aphorism to this effect: “It is easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting.” Perhaps this might be rephrased for the present discussion as follows: “It is easier to act your way into a new way of feeling than to feel your way into a new way of acting.” Here the therapist is, in effect, refusing to take the client’s mood very seriously and is clearly proposing that he look to his actions rather than to his feelings.

In 1961 Mowrer published “The Crisis in Psychiatry and Religion”, and he credited Jones with an instance: 7

Informally, I have often cited an aphorism by E. Stanley Jones to the effect that it is easier to act yourself into a new way of thinking than to think yourself into a new way of acting.

Also in 1961 the religious figure Harry Emerson Fosdick used an instance but disclaimed authorship: 8

Someone— I forget who— has said, “It is often easier to act yourself into a new way of thinking than to think yourself into a new way of acting.” That is everlastingly true, and nowhere more so than in the realm of spiritual experience and faith.

In 1965 Professor of Pastoral Counseling Howard J. Clinebell Jr. ascribed an instance with the word “feeling” to Mowrer: 9

As Hobart Mowrer has pointed out, it is sometimes easier to act yourself into a new way of feeling than to feel your way into a new way of acting (the route of conventional psychotherapy).

In 1969 J. P. Allen pastor of the Broadway Baptist Church of Ft. Worth. Texas delivered a sermon during a conference held in North Carolina. He employed an instance with the phrase “new ways”: 10

“There is no way to get anything in life without endless practice. It is easier to act your way into new ways of thinking than to think your way into new ways of acting,” Allen told the assembly.

In 1977 popular motivational author Zig Ziglar published a revised edition of “See You At the Top”, and he attributed an instance to a friend: 11

. . . as my good friend Bruce Norman, Principal of Magnet High School for Health Professions in Dallas, Texas, likes to say, “you can’t ‘feel’ your way into a new way of acting, but you can ‘act’ your way into a new way of feeling.”

In 1979 “1,001 Logical Laws” compiled by John Peers included an instance with the word “behave”: 12

Kegley’s Principle of Change:
It is easier to behave your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of behaving.

In 1992 the “Treasury of Women’s Quotations” compiled by Carolyn Warner included the following entry: 13

It’s easier to act your way into new ways of feeling than to feel yourself into new ways of acting.
Susan Glaser

In 2003 “The Change Champion’s Fieldguide” included a chapter written by Jerry Sternin who stated that he “came across the phrase”: 14

. . . it would be another ten years before I came across the phrase, I was struggling with an intuitive awareness that it’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than to think your way into a new way of acting.

Also in 2003 writer John C. Maxwell employed a variant in his book “Thinking for a Change: 11 Ways Highly Successful People Approach Life and Work”: 15

To start the thinking process, you cannot rely on your feelings. In Failing Forward, I wrote that you can act your way into feeling long before you can feel your way into action.

In 2012 the book “Change-Friendly Leadership” attributed an instance to one of the co-founders of Habitat for Humanity International: 16

It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting.
Millard Fuller

In conclusion, QI conjectures that the earliest instances of this family were already in circulation in 1930, and the creator (or creators) were anonymous. The expressions evolved over time as the phrasings and vocabulary were altered. E. Stanley Jones popularized some instances in his books, but he did not really create them. Orval Hobart Mowrer also popularized some instances, but he credited Jones.

Image Notes: Public domain picture of a clapperboard used in movie making from Mediamodifier at Pixabay. Image has been resized.

(Great thanks to David Dabscheck and George Dinwiddie whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks to Clay Harris who pointed out a misspelling.)

Notes:

  1. 1930 June 26, The Herman Record, S. S. Convention Very Successful, Quote Page 1, Column 4, Herman, Nebraska. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1932 December 10, The Greenfield Daily Reporter, Solve Doubts By Going Ahead, Quote Page 1, Column 6, Greenfield, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1936 Copyright, Victorious Living by E. Stanley Jones (Eli Stanley Jones), Date: January 28 – Fifth Week, Quote Page 36, The Abingdon Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  4. 1937 Copyright, The Choice Before Us by E. Stanley Jones (Eli Stanley Jones), Chapter 7: The Kingdom—The Key To Unity, Quote Page 156, The Abingdon Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  5. 1940, Is the Kingdom of God Realism? by E. Stanley Jones (Eli Stanley Jones), Chapter 10: The Realism of the New Birth, Quote Page 194, Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  6. 1959, Critical Incidents in Psychotherapy by Stanley W. Standal and ‎Raymond J. Corsini, Chapter 5: Socratic Therapy: Comment by O. Hobart Mowrer, Quote Page 80, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Verified with scans)
  7. 1961 Copyright, The Crisis in Psychiatry and Religion by O. Hobart Mowrer (University of Illinois), Chapter 10: Psychology, Theology, and the Social Self, Quote Page 139, An Insight Book: D. Van Nostrand Company, Princeton, New Jersey. (Verified with scans)
  8. 1961 Copyright, Dear Mr. Brown: Letters To a Person Perplexed About Religion by Harry Emerson Fosdick, Chapter 9: How does one start to be a Christian?, Quote Page 94, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified with scans)
  9. 1965, The Clergy and People in Crisis: Proceedings of a Day Institute May 8, 1965, The Quiet Revolution in Pastoral Counseling by Howard J. Clinebell Jr. Ph.D., (Professor of Pastoral Counseling, Southern California School of Theology at Claremont), Start Page 43, Quote Page 54, Co-Sponsored by Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health and The Mental Health Development Program, Welfare Planning Council, Los Angeles Region. (Verified with scans)
  10. 1969 August 2, The Asheville Citizen, Ridgecrest Conference Hears Dr. Allen, Quote Page 14, Column 1, Asheville, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com)
  11. 1978 (1977 Copyright), See You At the Top (Formerly entitled Biscuits, Fleas, and Pump Handles) by Zig Ziglar, Chapter 2: Insuring Your Attitude, Quote Page 238, Pelican Publishing Company, Gretna, Louisiana. (Verified with scans)
  12. 1979, 1,001 Logical Laws, Accurate Axioms, Profound Principles, Compiled by John Peers, Edited by Gordon Bennett, Quote Page 177, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  13. 1992, Treasury of Women’s Quotations by Carolyn Warner, Chapter 2: Action, Quote Page 13, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Verified with scans)
  14. 2003, The Change Champion’s Fieldguide: Strategies and Tools for Leading Change in Your Organization, Edited by David Ulrich, Louis Carter, Jim Bolt et al, Chapter 3: Practice Positive Deviance for Extraordinary Social and Organizational Change by Jerry Sternin, Start Page 20, Quote Page 30, Best Practice Publications, New York. (Verified with scans)
  15. 2003, Thinking for a Change: 11 Ways Highly Successful People Approach Life and Work by John C. Maxwell, Part I: Change Your Thinking and Change Your Life, Chapter 3: Master the Process of Intentional Thinking, Quote Page 51, Warner Books, New York. (Verified with scans)
  16. 2012, Change-Friendly Leadership: How To Transform Good Intentions into Great Performance by Dr. Rodger Dean Duncan, Chapter 12: Step 5: Ford the Streams, Quote Page 240, Maxwell Stone Publishing, liberty, Missouri. (Verified with scans)